OMS rice sets off coronavirus risks and corruption

Women stand in a queue to receive relief supplies provided by local community amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 1 April.Reuters

The food directorate is in a dilemma over its open market sales (OMS) programme. While it continues the programme in order to help underprivileged people during the crisis created by the coronavirus outbreak, much of the rice is going to the black market. Also, the jostling crowds coming to collect the rice increase the risk of coronavirus transmission.

Under the circumstance, the food directorate has been thinking of moving away from selling the rice in the open market. They plan instead to make lists of poor people and move their selling points in those particular areas with underprivileged people.

Most of the countries affected by coronavirus are helping the poor differently from Bangladesh. In many countries, poor people are being provided free food as well as cash. Basic and important foodstuff is being delivered to the people’s doors as part of government initiative.

Food minister Sadhan Chandra Majumder said, “We do not have the human resources to deliver food from door to door. If the local administration takes the initiative, we may help with the rice in our food department's warehouse. They can deliver it to the poor.”

Saying that those involved in misappropriating relief will face stringent action, the minister said, the food ministry sent letters to each district and upazila administration in this regard.

IFPRI’s suggestion

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) recently presented an article in a discussion on what kind of food help can be provided to the people affected by the coronavirus in Bangladesh.

IFPRI Bangladesh’s country director Akhter Ahmed had several proposals to provide help for the poor affected by the virus outbreak in Bangladesh.

He said the coronavirus could spread further through programmes like selling rice in the open market, adding that the food must be delivered to people's homes. It has to be kept in mind that every house in the slums should be brought under the programme. The entire slum must be fed until the lockdown lifts. He also mentioned that the diet should contain nutritious rice, oil and pulses.

Akhtar Ahmed suggested that the food assistance programme of selling rice at 10 taka per kg in the upazila and district level should continue. In addition, every family should be given cash assistance of 1800 taka. However, the latter can be involved in work through a job creation programme and the amount can be debited from their wages afterwards. The organisation believes the food can be distributed through receipts or vouchers.

How is Bangladesh providing food?

The government has initiated a food-assistance programme for five million people in the village and a special programme to sell rice in OMS markets in the city. The programme has been going on for four years. Special OMS began last week. In both the programmes, the food department is selling rice for 10-taka per kg among the poor. Experts have also raised questions whether these two programme are sufficient for people affected by the coronavirus outbreak. They apprehended that such programmes would be far from effective and rather would increase corruption, hoarding rice in the black market and health risks.

Director general of the food directorate, Sarwar Mahmud, told Prothom Alo that, "We have been facing several difficulties while selling rice in OMS markets. So, we are planning to deliver rice to the poor people in a different way from next week. We would not sell rice in open truck like before”.

How other countries are distributing foods

IFPRI has published multiple analyses and reports on how other countries are helping poor people amid coronavirus outbreak. Those analyses show countries like India, China, Vietnam and Indonesia are listing poor people affected by coronavirus and delivering free food and cash to them. As a result, the poor do not have to come out to collect food risking their lives.

The report titled 'How food assistance has worked in COVID-19 Lockdown in India' published on 6 April showed the Indian government has taken a special relief program, largely of food assistance, of 22 billion dollars after the announcement of 21-days lockdown. The government of the country has already started providing free food of 5 kg rice and 1 kg pulses to the poor.

At the same time, 220 million poor women are being provided with cash assistance of Rs 500 per month to their bank account. However, the assistance was not sufficient for the poor, the IFPRI report said. There, it is said that India's government warehouses have reserves of 77 million tonnes of rice and wheat. Indian government can afford to distribute more food.

China, on the other hand, has provided food aid to homes in areas affected coronavirus. The United States has provided its citizens with basic foods through social security cards. South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan have provided cash assistance to its citizens. Citizens have purchased food through e-commerce companies.

Director general of Bangladesh Development Research Institute KS K Murshid said, the relief is being distributed as if it is during floods and cyclones.

“Food transportation and markets are open, although people are locked in their homes. There are also arrangements of transferring money through cell phones all over the country. The government should provide cash assistance to the people for the next three months so that they can buy food from the market as needed,” he said.

According to the non-profit development organisation, BRAC, due to the coronavirus outbreak, 14 percent of low-income people in the country have no food in their homes.

*This piece, originally appeared in Prothom Alo online, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat